This piece was originally published in August 2019, and was last updated in December 2020.
Influencer marketing has become a key pillar of digital marketing strategies and has had to weed out fake influencer followers along the way. As campaigns are carried out by brands far and wide, they need to be sure they’re investing in long-term influencer partnerships, bringing in real engagements. Influencer marketing is built on authenticity, so identifying fake followers is the first line of defence against fraud in the industry.
Successful macro-influencers can generate impressive numbers of followers, with a high number of engagements to boot. By developing a significant following and level of social influence, creators have brought new opportunities for brands looking to build their presence online.
However, not all influencers have genuinely earned their followers. A small number of influencers have purchased fake followers, accounts that follow and interact with them but who are not genuine people or fans, in most cases they’re bots. This is incredibly demaging for an influencer’s reputation and authenticity, not to mention a highly expensive mistake for brands to make! (Learn from Ritz-Carlton, who once hired influencers with 78% fake followers!) In order to avoid risky investment in influencers, what do companies need to know about fake followers, and the tools to detect them?
How to Manually Detect Fake Followers
By definition, fake followers’ engagement is worthless. Behind thousands of likes and/or comments, there is no actual audience to be interested in your products. Sourcing out authentic influencers who have a genuine connection with their audiences is one of the most important tasks of influencer marketing. While looking for influencers to collaborate with, it’s important to keep an eye out for these characteristics:
Very Low or Very High Engagement Rate
At first sight, influencers with large numbers of followers could look authentic. However, many of these followers could be bought, and these purchases could be a mix of real people and bots/fake accounts. Instagram has tried to stop this phenomenon by blocking suspicious behaviors (large number of likes or followers in a day), but many still fall through the cracks.
Analyzing engagement figures is a good place to start, as rates that are very low or very high can indicate fake accounts. You can calculate the engagement rate by adding the total number of engagements (likes and comments) and dividing that by the total number of followers x 100. A very low engagement, i.e less than 1% would hint at fake followers. This happens when an influencer may have a very high number of followers, but few genuine engagements, not many likes or comments as the followers are not real people!
Similarly, be wary of very high engagement rates as this could indicate influencers are buying likes and comments to artificially boost engagement levels. Repetitive likes or engagements on every post is a giveaway of this kind of behavior.
Spammy & Irrelevant Comments
To assess whether an influencer has real followers it’s a good to idea to dig into the comments section! This gives great qualitative insight into who is interacting with them and how. You can usually spot genuine comments easily as they’ll directly reference the content or respond to comments in the thread. Comments that are spam or seem out of place are usually due to fake followers and bots.
Here are some suspicious comments to notice:
- Comments with only emojis/no actual context.
- Comments with short, common, and repetitive phrases (e.g. “Hot!!!”, “Beautiful”, “Great shot!!”, etc.)
- Irrelevant or out-of-context comments (e.g. “Beautiful girl!” on a photo of food)
The final thing to check is the actual accounts that make these comments: They usually have very few or no followers, most likely with a generic or random instagram handles, no bios, and are often private accounts – dead giveaways for bots!
Number of Followers to Following Ratio
Another indicator, immediately visible, is the following/followers ratio (The number of accounts someone follows versus the number of accounts who follow them.) An authentic influencer account should have many more followers than following.
Unauthentic influencers usually have an equal amount of followers/following, and there are many reasons leading to this phenomenon. In order to increase followers, many people seek for other accounts to “follow for follow” (f4f) or “shoutout for shoutout” (s4s). While this increases the number of their followers, their community of followers is irrelevant to the content of their account.
Free Tools to Spot Fake Followers
There are some other key metrics to identify suspicious accounts, such as the number of new followers each day and the number of people who unfollow. But it is not possible to make this observation yourself. Fortunately, there are simple yet effective online tools available to detect these data in order to reflect real/fake profiles.
Upfluence offers a free Chrome plugin that gives users insight to an influencer’s social media performance. Works on Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, Twich, blogs and Pinterests, the plugin can analyze a profile’s engagement rate, reach, audience demographics, and more. You can download it here.
IG audit is a free and easy-to-use tool. Simply enter the name of the account you are interested in, and the algorithm delivers the percentage of real followers within minutes. To do this, the tool scans about 200 random followers for reference, all the while taking in consideration of the account’s average likes and comments. Real influencers reach more than 70% of real followers.
Social Blade allows you to check influencer data on all social networks. With this tool, you can easily and quickly find the engagement rate, the number of followers won or lost each day, and the number of followers.
While a sudden spike of followers is suspicious, it does not always mean that they are purchased accounts (the influencers may have gone viral, mentioned in a much larger account, etc.), but many sudden increases or irregular patterns could be an indication of fake/bought followers.
The industry as a whole has been moving away from using vanity metrics as the only way to identify successful influencers. The rise of micro-influencers, who are far less likely to have fake followers, goes to show that choosing influencers for their large number of followers isn’t always the way to go. As a brand looking to work with influencers, you should turn your attention to finding influencers that deliver a high ROI and generate sales. These conversions are much more difficult to artificially replicate, and are a much stronger indicator that an influencer can help you meet your goals.