Influencer marketing has grown significantly in the last few years. The rise of social media superstars presents the perfect opportunity for those with a large number of social followers to market your product to your target audience. After all, 71% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase based on a social media reference. (source)

When executed well, influencer marketing can be an effective method for attracting customers. Michael Broukhim, co-founder of FabFitFun, a beauty subscription service uses influencer marketing to grow his business 300% yearly, while global brands, including Daniel Wellington and Pedigree, have used Instagram influencers to promote their products to a wider audience.

Social media influencer Kristyn Cole advertising Pedigree with the help of her dog Lieka.

But, what happens when your brand campaign doesn’t go as well as expected. The rise of fake influencers may provide an answer.

The Rise of The Fake Influencer

Naturally, boasting a large Instagram following provides a greater opportunity for brand deals. With potentially thousands of dollars at stake, the number of users buying fake followers and using bots to enhance their following has risen. However, the days in which a user could purchase thousands of followers and expect the cash to come rolling in may be numbered.

Earlier this year, the CMO of Unilever, Keith Weed, stated that the company has a commitment to work with only genuine influencers. Additionally, beauty giant L’Oréal recently announced plans to undertake background checks as part of a vetting process for influencers they’re looking to work with.

The Problem with Instagram Cheats

In a survey of the Association of National Advertisers members, 19% thought their investment in influencer marketing was ineffective. While the cost of influencer marketing is increasing, there is currently no standard method of measuring the effectiveness of an Instagram brand campaign, making it easy for fake influencers to capitalize on the growing trend of influencer marketing.

According to anti-fraud company Sway Ops, the number of daily Instagram posts tagged with #ad or #sponsored contained over 50 percent fake engagement, while bot comments were responsible for more than 40 percent of comments on over 500 of 2000 sponsored posts created daily.

Essentially, your business could be spending money on an Instagram campaign that will never provide a return on investment – an irrelevant target market and ghost accounts means you’re unlikely to see any positive effect.

For many brands, knowing how to spot an Instagram fraud is itself a challenge. So, how can you filter out the fake influencers from the authentic social media superstars.

How to Spot A Fake Influencer

A large social following, likes, or comments, doesn’t necessarily mean that an influencer is genuine. On the surface, you may imagine you have the perfect person to front your brand marketing, on the other hand, its straightforward to purchase fake followers and engagement.

Thankfully, with a little digging, there are a few ways to spot who is faking their Instagram popularity.

Social Blade

One of the main ways to spot fake influencers was Social Blade – however, since Instagram altered their policies it now no longer works, although you may find up-to-date data for a number of users if they have a business account. Social Blade allows you to see the following and unfollowing pattern for an account. If a user is following and unfollowing a large number of users on a daily basis, its highly likely that they’re using a bot. The method of this is by following an account, a user will return the follow. While this method can take longer to build an account than straight up buying followers, it makes their influence appear more authentic to brands when, in fact, they’re cheating the Instagram algorithm.

Here is what the chart of well-known bot user on Social Blade:

You’ll notice that over the last two years, this user has followed and unfollowed thousands of users to grow their Instagram following. While it seems like their bot use has tapered off, a search on their recent activity demonstrates that they still actively follow and unfollow hundreds of accounts on a weekly basis.

If you suspect a user is gaining their following with the use of a bot, there are also additional ways to spot fake activity.

·        The use of fake comments – a user who has grown their following with a bot, or is simply buying followers, may have low engagement. For instance, if an account has half a million followers and is barely achieving 1000 likes per photo, it could signal that the user is a fake influencer. To counteract this, the user may purchase bot ‘comments’ to give the impression of high engagement. Alternatively, this account holder may use a bot to comment on other people’s images. You’ll often find generic comments, such as ‘pretty pic’ or comments which don’t relate to the image are from bots.

Here is an example of comments from a bot. Notice how ‘different’ accounts are posting the same comment more than once.

Photo source via In The Frow

The use of fake likes – Many users purchase fake likes to try and beat the algorithm and ensure their images are shown on your feed. Those who buy likes may not necessarily have purchased fake followers or be using bots to grow their following. However, they’re still faking their engagement. Spotting fake likes is a little more difficult than spotting fake comments or users. One way to spot fake likes is to check the like-follower-ratio. According to Influencer DB, the average like-follower-ratio is below;

Notice how those with a larger following tend to naturally boast a lower engagement.

Fashion Influencer Victoria Mcgrath of In The Frow notes that some users often purchase thousands of extra likes within the first few minutes of posting an image to help promote their image to the top of their followers feeds. Checking who has liked a post can often detect paid likes – if likes are coming from fake accounts then you can be sure that the user has paid for them. If you’re noticing an account is getting an extremely high level of engagement on every photo, then it’s likely that paid likes are in play.

·        Fake followers – fake followers are easier to find. Often, you’ll find that an account has grown by a significant number of followers in a very short period of time. For instance, if an account has grown by 50,000 followers over 24 hours, then it may be a sign of an Instagram Cheater. However, a user may purchase followers over a longer period of time to try and avoid suspicion. While it’s natural for an account to grow rapidly after a shoutout on a popular account or via word of mouth, completing an Instagram audit can help you to separate genuine accounts from those telling fibs.

·        IG Audit is a free tool which scans 200 random followers of an Instagram account to determine their real to fake follower ratio. Those with a low percentage are likely to have purchased fake followers. A genuine account will have a high percentage;

 Social Audit Pro is a paid for service which helps you to examine an account’s reach and engagement.

·        Like-Wise is a new tool from Social Chain which is designed to highlight fake influencers and ensure brands only work with authentic users.

·        Taking a look through an account’s followers can also flag up fakes – fake accounts often use a mixture of letters and numbers in their username, may not use a profile image, and may not display any posts of their own.

Alternatively, you’ll often find that Instagram regularly clear fake accounts, causing a significant drop in followers for those who have purchased their audience. Losing thousands of users in one go is usually a sign of a fake following.

·        Content – another way to determine if a user is using a bot or paid followers is by taking a look at their content. If their posts tend to be poor quality and published inconsistently, yet their following is extraordinarily high, there’s a good chance of cheating going on.

·        Follower location – knowing the location of an accounts followers can help to determine if a user is buying fakes. If a social media influencer is based in the UK and most of their following is based in Asia, then this could be a sign of foul play. You can ask an influencer for details of their audience analytics or you can use a platform like Scrunch to analyse their audience.

·        Check their other social accounts – checking the analytics of an influencer’s additional social media accounts can give an insight into their audience. However, it doesn’t always give an accurate picture of their authenticity, especially as they may be only using fake followers on one social account. You can use Likealyzer to analyse Facebook pages and ask for Google analytics stats for a user’s website.

Finding A Genuine Influencer

To execute effective brand campaigns, finding genuine Instagram users is essential. Here are a few important methods for discovering authentic influencers.

1.      Check the following to follower ratio

An authentic influencer will generally have a much smaller following count in comparison to their number of followers. Following an unusually high number of accounts may suggest bot use. Here is what a genuine account may look like;

Check their engagement

Take a look at the last couple of posts on a user’s account. Those with lower followings tend to have a higher engagement. However, the Instagram algorithm means that many accounts may not be getting seen by their followers. Generally, around 5 percent engagement (when the engagement to follower ratio is compared) is excellent. Anything over ten is considered viral. If a user is gaining twenty percent on every post, it’s considered extremely unlikely.

It’s also important to look for authentic comments and questions from followers as a sign of a genuine account. It’s natural for engagement to fluctuate on each post. A genuine account may look like this;

3.      Check the lifespan of an account

 A new user gaining thousands of followers in a short space of time is unlikely. Those with a high number of followers have often been active on Instagram for a longer period of time. You can check the lifespan of an account by scrolling through a user’s feed or viewing their post count to provide an estimate.

4.      Ask for proof

A genuine influencer will be happy to share their Instagram analytics with you. Just be sure that these are not photoshopped. Completing the other checks listed in this article should fall in line with the analytics their data displays.

5.      Consider working with micro-influencers

According to Forbes, many brands and marketers are now working with micro-influencers. Additionally, AdWeek noted that HelloSociety, an agency connecting brands and influencers, reported micro-influencers with less than 30,000 followers were more beneficial to work with due to boasting a 60% higher rate of engagement.

While it’s still important to audit the accounts of micro-influencers, cost effectiveness and the possibility of higher engagement means your brand campaign could prove more successful than using the big names in social media.

Influencer marketing isn’t going away anytime soon but knowing how to spot genuine Instagram influencers will ensure your brand’s money isn’t going down the drain. Whether you want to promote a new service or target a popular product to a new audience, using influencer marketing can be very lucrative for both business and digital influencer – just ensure you do your research before making any marketing decisions.