5 Ways to Spot Fake Engagement & Followers on Instagram

5 Ways to Spot Fake Engagement & Followers on Instagram
Learn how to spot fake engagement on Instagram, without spending your own money to find out the hard way.
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This is why experience trumps any form of analytical software. Know what you’re looking for, depend on yourself, and trust your gut instincts.

Late last year, Unilever’s Chief Marketing Officer, Keith Weed, blasted the influencer marketing industry for its lack of transparency and abundance of fake followers and engagement. The marketing world has now begun to assess whether or not their own social media influencers are as honest about their audience as they initially thought they were.

No doubt fake followers and engagement is one of the hottest topics in influencer marketing right now, but where are all the good resources on how to spot this misconduct? 

Sure, there are influencer marketing platforms that claim to be able to tell you the authenticity of someone’s following, but how accurate do you think that is? With Facebook continuing to restrict its API access for third-party sites, many of these platforms are not actually able to get accurate data. Many of them rely on pulling data from an influencer’s Twitter channel instead — which is a totally different platform!

When you boil it down, you are your most trusted source for the truth. Learn how to spot fake followers and engagement yourself and you won’t need to rely on third-party sites when you have no idea where they’re pulling data from, or how accurate their reports are.

I’ve analyzed literally thousands of accounts, so I’ve become an expert at knowing how to spot fake followers and engagement. In this article, I’ll teach you how to detect it yourself.

1. Consistent Engagement

So am I telling you an influencer getting consistent engagement can be a bad thing? Yes, I am.

Start by opening up an influencer’s page on your desktop. Hover your mouse over the first 15–20 posts and get a feel for what their ‘Likes’ and comments average.

Now here’s the test — how much does the engagement vary? Does the variance make sense? As in, do the photos or videos that look like they would engage more, actually engage more?

Full-body photos, high resolution, bright selfies, photos with dogs or babies… all these earn more likes and comments on social media. Images of only products, promotional posts, or low quality, dark photos all engage less on social media. It’s a fact. Besides, Instagram’s algorithm favors high quality, bright images, and thus pushes them up the timeline — earning even more engagement.

When an influencer’s engagement (‘likes’ especially) doesn’t vary much, they could be paying for likes and splitting them amongst their posts. If you see that the majority of their posts are average between let’s say, 2,500 and 3,200 likes, with really nothing outside of the average range, they’re paying for likes on their posts.

Engagement should vary based on how engaging a post is. Yes, that seems like common sense and it is, but you should be comparing engagement on high quality posts with engagement on low quality posts, and there should be a major difference.

This is a good start to your analysis on fake followers and engagement, but smart influencers will purchase more likes for posts they know would engage more. Let’s move on to #2.

2. Instagram Podding

This is a big one, especially in the fashion industry. One of the reasons we try to stay away from working with fashion brands, is because of the type of influencers available to work with in this niche.

It’s nothing personal, but the fashion influencers are notorious for Instagram podding.

What’s ‘Instagram Podding,’ you ask? It’s when a group of up to 32 influencers take part in a single Direct Message (DM) group on Instagram. When one of them posts, they send it to the group via DM, and then everyone in the group will like and comment on the post. Often these influencers are in several different Instagram pods, quickly earning dozens of comments on their posts.

To make matters worse, because these comments are not coming from bots, they’re able to write “buying comments” on the posts like “OMG need this!”, “Where did you get this?” or “Thanks, just put in my order!”

Then another brand comes along and checks out the influencer’s page to see what sort of engagement they get on their sponsored posts. They click one and see that there are a ton of people engaging about the product, some even saying they’ve purchased it — great, that’s awesome! … Except, not so fast.

What you should do in this situation, is open up the accounts who are writing buying comments and see if they’re also influencers. Unfortunately, chances are they are. The sad reality is that sponsored posts often earn less engagement and actually more hate, but it doesn’t have to. It takes an expert to create sponsored post content that actually earns above average engagement.

Avoid working with influencers who are heavy into Instagram podding. It’s a genuinely easy one to spot, so make sure to do this before contacting any influencer you wish to represent your brand.

3. “Spammy” Comments

On the back of the previous section, we’re now going to look for those generic comments that are actually bots.

Yes, bots are smart enough to comment on an influencer’s post. They’re sometimes setup to comment things that actually have something to do with what’s going on in the image. For example, if an influencer is wearing sunglasses in their post, you may see comments like “Nice sunnies!”, “OMG your sunglasses ❤”, “Where did you get your sunnies?”

To the unsuspecting, this may seem like buying engagement. Again, click on these accounts and assess whether or not they look like real people.

Spoiler! Some bot accounts actually look like real people. Although, they’re often just accounts with random photos that were added all within a short period of time. For example, an account @anakte1024 might have 18 posts, all photos pulled from National Geographic. This is a fake account.

More commonly, these fake comments will look like spam. They’ll be generic comments like “Love this”, “Hermosa!”, “Beautiful!”, “Love this look”, etc.

Real, quality engagement is much more conversational.

Before contacting an influencer to represent your brand, make sure you do your due diligence. Check out their latest 10–12 posts and ensure that the engagement they are getting is from real people.

4. Inconsistent Ratio of Views, Likes & Comments

Wait, first I’m saying that consistent engagement can be a sign of fake followers and engagement, now I’m telling you that inconsistent engagement levels can also be a sign of fake followers? Yes, in fact I am.

This is why experience trumps any form of analytical software. Know what you’re looking for, depend on yourself, and trust your gut instincts.

There should be outliers (remember, the product only posts, flat lays, etc), but influencers should have a consistent ratio of likes vs. comments for the most part. Shoot for average, or above average engagement rates. You can use an engagement rate calculator like MightyScout offers for free.

Buying bot comments costs more than buying bot likes. Some influencers will choose to save their money by not buying comments. In this case, you’ll see an influencer with a healthy level of likes, but relatively no comments. If an influencer has 50,000 followers, they should be getting 1,500–3,000 likes and 20–40 comments. This isn’t gospel, but it’s a good rule of thumb. When an influencer is getting thousands of likes, but nobody is commenting — this is a red flag for a few reasons.

Either their content isn’t very engaging (which is bad for your brand), or they’re buying likes, but not comments.

Avoid these influencers. You want to only work with those that have real and healthy engagement from people who are interested in the content that influencer shares.

The other thing you should be looking for is video views. It’s difficult for bots to get counted within video views on a post, so check out the number of views an influencer’s video gets. If the influencer with 50,000 followers only gets a few hundred video views, they either have an uninterested audience, fake followers, or both. An influencer of this level should be getting at least a few thousands views and should vary from one video to another.

5. Unexplainable Spikes in Follower Growth

Here’s one of the easiest methods to spotting bought followers. Search an influencer’s handle on Socialblade, which is a tool that lets you see an influencer’s growth rate for followers, following and number of posts.

It puts it in chart form, so you’re able to see how much an influencer has grown over time. If an influencer buys followers, they’ll more often than not have it all delivered in a day or two. You may see they’re slowing growing by a dozen or two followers a day and then all of a sudden, they jump 5,000 in a single day.

If you see this, you don’t want to assume automatically that they were bought followers. Start by Googling the influencer’s name to see if they were in the media for anything that would have caused them to grow rapidly. We’ve seen it before where an influencer had stagnant growth, then suddenly grew by thousands and it was because of going viral for something. This happens, mind you quite infrequently.

Let’s say you find nothing in the media, do you now assume that they have bought followers? No. Influencers will sometimes get shoutouts from other pages with large audiences, which is fine. Start by looking down their own Instagram feed and find the days leading up to when they experienced the sudden spike. Are there any posts that stand out as a reason for the growth? Or is the engagement steady during that period of time? If it is, chances are they did in fact buy followers. The last check we recommend is looking at an influencer’s tagged posts by tapping the icon on the far right of their feed, were they tagged in a post from a big page?

When an influencer genuinely does have a surge of new followers, it’ll happen over the course of a few days — not one single day. So check Socialblade and see if it was one single 24 hour period, or continued growth before tapering down.

So if they weren’t in the media and didn’t get tagged in a post from a significant shoutout page on that date, they’re likely guilty. In this case, avoid the influencer like the plague.

While no single one of these tactics can be a true telltale sign of fake engagement, in combination they’ll give you a really good indication. You should perform all of these tests when deciding whether or not to contact an influencer to work with your brand.

Unfortunately, fake followers and engagement is far more prevalent than marketers realize. Although, we anticipate social media channels like Facebook and Instagram will get better at minimizing this and may even put more of their own measures into place to prevent it from happening.

Don’t let a few bad apples stop you from using influencer marketing to promote your brand. Influencer marketing is by far the most cost-effective, impactful online marketing method out there. According to an article by Inc., influencer marketing delivers 11x higher ROI than all other forms of digital media. Combine that with the fact the industry grew to $1.2 billion in 2017, to an anticipated $1.8 billion in 2018 and a growth of 550 percent by 2021.

There’s never a better time to get into the space if you’re not already. Marketers who are already using influencers are increasing budgets and appointing more resources to this form of marketing.

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