How To Spot Fake Followers
One of the biggest controversies in the influencer marketing space at the moment is fake followers. Arguably, the core reason this has reached such a problematic stage, is brands selecting influencers based on ‘vanity’ metrics such as follower numbers alone. Indeed in ZINE’s research we discovered that a whopping 41% of influencers are only asked to demonstrate their follower numbers ahead of a paid collaboration. With this attitude towards metrics, how could influencer fraud not become a problem?
Influencer marketing has become such a lucrative business, with some estimates the industry will be worth over $5 billion by the year 2020. This has presented a huge opportunity for fraudsters to offer would-be influencers a whole host of options to skew the popularity of their accounts.
The Fake Follower Issue
First on the menu is fake followers. There are hundreds of outlets offering ‘genuine’ followers’ for a really quite small fee. These outlets vary in sophistication, with users having the ability to even specify the county of their new fanbase.
How To Spot Fake Followers
Here are a few key takeaways to spotting fake followers without the aid of an influencer marketing platform like ZINE:
- Click on an influencers’ follower list and randomly check some profiles. Check their follower to following ratio: While ‘fake accounts’ may have a small amount of (random) content, a profile pic, and even a link to a website, they are likely to be following thousands of accounts but only have a small number of followers themselves.
- High follower number / low engagement: if your influencer in question has thousands of followers but a 0% engagement, it is more likely that they have bought followers.
- Follower spikes: Ask your influencers for their follower growth over time (either Instagram analytics or ZINE media kit), and check for big spikes in growth.
- Follower drops: A large drop in an influencers’ following in one day may seem as a counter-intuitive indicator – but Instagram does take the issue of fake account serious and conducts regular purges to get rid of those accounts. If an influencers fake following is hit by such a purge, their account will potentially lose a large number of their followers. That definitely takes down their percentage of fake followers – but would you want to work with someone who potentially bought followers in the past?
- Location: In addition to the above, if your influencers also have anomalies in the location of their following this can be an indication of some funny business. Free digital tools like the ZINE media kit show a breakdown of the influencers audience – amongst other things!
Pro Tip: Ask your influencers to sign up for a free ZINE media kit – even if you aren’t a client of ours. They can then send you a link to their media kit displaying follower numbers and engagement rates!
The Fake Engagement Issue
So, if follower numbers can easily be faked, I’ll look at engagement instead right?
Yes and no….
Next on the menu of fraudulent influencer marketing activity, is bots used to boost engagements. Bots are programmes used by Instagrammers to execute a number of automated actions, including:
- Direct messages
There are two effects of using a bot to boost engagement and following for an account:
- The account using the bot, if used heavily, might temporarily look like a fake account, eg. has a high following to follower ratio. Bots are often programmed to follow as many people as possible, and then start un-following the ones who didn’t follow back.
Note: The follow/unfollow game is as old as Instagram itself, and many of the first Instagram stars started off by manually following and unfollowing accounts for days and weeks.
- The account will get higher engagement, views and likes from users who are not actually following the account. Following someone, liking their picture or messaging them directly draws attention, so the bot operated profile will get a boost in engagement from its activities.
So now we not only have an account with artificially increased engagement, we also have a bot or ghost follower. Therefore most public profiles will have ‘bots’ following them despite not being in the business of buying followers.
Are the followers accumulated by using a bot, fake?
Since the follow/unfollow game has been around forever, with many now celebrity influencers admitting this technique was used to get critical mass at first, this is a tricky question. It’s a way to draw attention to your profile and subsequent followings may well be genuine as well as engagement. So whilst a bot may only automate what many old school influencers have done during endless hours of manual labour, we need to draw the line somewhere and paying for a piece of software to boost following and engagement is taking it one step too far for sure.
How To Spot Bought Engagements
- What do the comments say? Have a look at the content, and the see who is making the comments. If comments are random words / emojis – often generic and unrelated to the content of the post can point towards bought engagements or bots
- Sampling: Spot check a few of the accounts that have commented / liked. Do they look like the accounts we discussed earlier under ‘Fake Followers’?
- Spikes in engagement: ZINE is a unique influencer marketing platform as it produces automated reports that show engagement over time, both per follower in the campaign, and collectively. That means you will be able to see if any of the content gets a sudden spike in engagement that was likely induced by a purchase.
So…. Everyone has fake followers.
This is a bold statement, but we’re gonna go on a limb here and just put it out there. With Bots making their rounds endlessly on instagram, liking, commenting and following anyone crossing their programmed path, chances are you will sooner or later be followed by an account that is operated by a bot. The bigger your profile, the more likely so.
This is not a fake account, it’s a real account operated by a bot – but it’s not a real follower. It’s not someone who checked out your profile and content and then clicked ‘follow’ – it’s a bot, that decided, based on a number of pre-programmed parameters, to follow you. The only way to avoid this is to make your profile private and selectively approve followers that seem genuine.
The gift that keeps on giving
One sunny day Team ZINE woke up to a massive spike in their following on Instagram – hooray? Not really. The sudden influx of interest was accompanied by a friendly marketing email pointing out a complimentary gift of 200 followers in our account – for more, at a bargain price of £5.99 we should go through their website.
Follower vendors often do this, with followers and likes, and in particular with accounts they know are keen to grow their following or engagement. Influencers are a primary target for this and there is nothing an influencer can do apart from manually blocking every single fake follower from their account.
Fake Follower Summary
- A fake account can be relatively easily spotted based on a few key metrics like follower/following ratio
- Sampling influencers’ following to check for fake accounts is a good first approach when there is suspicion of fraud
- Engagement rates are good indicators – but equally prone to manipulation as followers
- Everyone has fake followers – the focus should be on an above average % of potentially fake accounts
ZINE’s Point Of View
Whilst periodically pushed to be a hot topic by the media, the issue of fake followers has been around for a long time and is likely to remain. It is impossible to maintain a clean account unless it’s kept private, with followers carefully vetted and approved by the account holder. At ZINE we believe that influencers should take a strong stance to protect the reputation of the industry by making their audience analytics and stats as transparent as possible to brands. ZINE’s influencer marketing technology assists influencers in achieving this by providing them with a media kit that details their overall stats and demographics in a single page – the media kit can be shared with anyone, and there is no need to sign up or in to ZINE to view it so there are no excuses. This data can be made available instantly to any brand with a single click. Whilst we believe in our influencers at ZINE we are not oblivious to the potential of fraud, even among influencers on the ZINE platform. We provide tools and analytics to influencers that will help them prove the validity of their following, but we also keep tabs on a number of metrics to track down fraudulent activity.
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I’m founder & CEO of ZINE. When I am not crusading to make influencer marketing more profitable and transparent, I am travelling the world one country at a time!