Last updated July 5, 2017. Scroll to bottom for most recent additions.

I felt obligated to write about this subject after bringing it up in social conversation and hearing time after time:

Whoa. Are you serious? People actually buy Instagram followers?!

Yes. Yes, they do.

This post is meant to help people – mainly to give insight to marketers who have jumped on the influencer marketing train and are actively sourcing individuals to help promote their business in exchange for product or monetary compensation.

So, why is it important to be able to tell if someone has fake followers? Well, simply put, you could be wasting your precious time and limited money on followers that just don’t exist. They won’t provide quality engagement. They won’t build brand loyalty with you. And most importantly, they won’t convert.

Many marketers and everyday people judge an Instagram user’s influence solely based on the number of people that are following them. Unfortunately, the reality is that evaluating someone’s influence, or the Instagram success of a brand, should go much much (MUCH) deeper than their follower count.

About a year ago, I was asked by a particular Instagram user (who shall remain anonymous) to collaborate with us at DIMIK. This user had approximately 9,000 followers. Having some experience with checking for fakes, I automatically made sure to check their likes against their followers. It checked out, and they had approximately 700 – 900 likes per photo, which made for an extremely appealing (and well above average) engagement rate. So we said yes. But then something felt off – I looked at their account again and couldn’t figure out why they had so many followers and likes. The photos were poor quality, the person wasn’t well-known, and they didn’t fill a niche of any sort. I then checked their comments. And I realized… I had been duped. Their photos only had 0-3 comments per photo on average, which made absolutely no sense considering the number of likes and followers they had. So I checked the type of followers they had, as well as the profiles of the accounts of those who had liked their photos. And my suspicions were proved correct – fake followers galore. Whoopsie. (See below for how I knew.)

Without further ado, here is a step-by-step process to check the quality of an individual’s (or a brand’s) account in order to judge if their following is real, or bought.

 

1. Check followers against likes

Engagement rates (total # of likes + comments / total # of followers) vary greatly based on the total number of followers the account has. For example, accounts with under 1,000 followers have an average engagement rate of 8%, while accounts with over 100,000 followers have an average engagement rate of just under 2%. As per Markerly statistics, the average like and comment rates in 2016 were as follows:

< 1k followers:

Average Like Rate: 8.03% Average Comment Rate: 0.56%

1k – 10k followers:

Average Like Rate: 4.04% Average Comment Rate: 0.27%

10k – 100k followers:

Average Like Rate: 2.37% Average Comment Rate: 0.14%

100k – 1M followers:

Average Like Rate: 1.78% Average Comment Rate: 0.09%

1M – 10M followers:

Average Like Rate: 1.66% Average Comment Rate: 0.06%

To calculate a reasonably accurate engagement rate, take the follower in question, and average the amount of total likes + comments for their past 10 photos. Take this number and divide it by their number of followers, then multiply this number by 100. Presto, engagement rate! For example:

  • 7,000 comments and likes total on past 10 photos / 10 photos = 700 total average engagement per photo
  • 700 total average engagement / 20,000 followers = 0.035
  • 0.035 x 100 = 3.5%

Now, take this number and compare it to the average rates as seen above for their # of followers. The engagement rate should fall within a reasonable distance from the typical averages. For our example, the average like rate is 4.04% (for accounts with 1k – 10k followers) and the average comment rate is 0.56%. Therefore, a total engagement rate of 3.5% is considered within reason, and it is likely that this account’s followers are real. Overall, an engagement rate that is at least approximately 50% of the above averages would be considered ‘normal’ in my experience, and would not necessarily set off alarm bells. For example, an account with under 1,000 followers should have an engagement rate of at least 4.3%, an account with 1k – 10k should have at least 2.2%, and so on and so forth.

Engagement Rates / © Caley Dimmock
Engagement Rates / © Caley Dimmock

But wait, you can still be fooled even if this checks out.

2. Compare comments to likes and follower amounts

Even if someone’s total engagement rate checks out, unfortunately, likes can be bought too. The easiest way to tell if post likes are fake is to check the number of comments in comparison to the number of likes.

Let’s say that an account has 5,000 followers, and an average total engagement rate of 5%. However, you notice that each photo only has an average of 0-2 comments. Something’s not adding up here. According to our industry averages, at 5,000 followers, there should be an average of 13.5 comments per photo. This means that if you are coming up with an average comment rate that is less than half of this, there is a real possibility that this account has not only purchased followers, but has also purchased likes. To confirm these suspicions, follow the next step.

3. Check the quality of their followers and likers

You can click on the number of likes to see the ‘likers’ of the photo. Chances are, you may see a list that looks a little like this:

Typical list of fake followers.
Typical list that includes fake followers.

And upon further investigation, you see followers and likers whose profiles look like these:

 

fake-follower

fake follower

 

The above accounts are bots. Notice how they barely have any followers yet they are following thousands of other users? This is the main hallmark of bought followers and likers. Some other characteristics that bots may have include the following:

  • The account is private
  • They have only posted a few photos
  • Their username seems like jibberish

 

4. Use your best judgment

While the above steps should lead you to an accurate conclusion, there are also other tricks of the trade believe it or not. There are also bots that will follow random accounts and haven’t been bought, so if you see a few of these types of followers on someone’s account, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have been purchased. Engagement rates also vary by industry and subject matter (for example, photos that show faces get 38% more likes on average than those that don’t). All things to consider.

Moral of the story? If something seems way too good to be true, it probably is. And you probably shouldn’t give them part of your marketing budget in hopes of return on your investment.

UPDATE JULY 2017: NEW TRENDS + TIPS

Social Blade

Spotting huge increases in someone’s following can be done if you’ve got your eye incredibly closely on their account. But without context, it’s hard to really know what’s real and what’s not.

Social Blade is a great (and free) resource for taking a peek into Instagram users’ growth and account activity. The most useful aspect of the website to spot fake followewrs is to search the user in question and check their “Followers” column. Are they usually gaining 5-10 followers a day, but then on one random day they gained 5,000 followers? Yeah. Not a chance.

fake-followers-social-blade
Screenshot from socialblade.com of user with organic followers

Using social blade makes it super easy to spot purchased followers, and while some Instagrammers will try to play the “I got reposted by a big account that day” card, increases of this level are simply not typical at all. The exception being getting reposted by a mega celebrity. Usually, being reposted or mentioned by an account with 200k followers will result in anywhere from only 20-500 new followers. Not 5,000.

Furthermore, if you see that an account is losing a bunch of followers each day, and then has random spikes of thousands at a time on certain days, this is also a sure sign they are using some shady methods.

fake-followers-social-blade-2
Screenshot from socialblade.com

Drip Followers

While spotting fake follower spikes on Social Blade is relatively easy, Instagrammers have already found a way around this when it comes to purchasing fake followers and keeping it under the radar. Enter drip followers. Dripping followers is when instead of someone purchasing a bulk amount of followers at one time, they purchase an ongoing subscription of incoming fake followers. This can be really tough to spot, because it can be done in very small amounts such as only 10 per day. Furthermore, if when scrolling through the user’s followers you don’t see mass amounts of obvious bots, it is even more difficult to tell when someone is using this method to artificially increase their following.

As found on one website that offers this service: “Spreading out your Instagram promotion helps create a natural rise in popularity. Sites that do one-time bulk promotion can lead to unnatural profile interaction that will either end up being removed or causing your account to be flagged.”

Funny how the word “natural” is used to describe the process.

 

Have you found any other sure signs or easy ways to tell if someone’s followers might not organic? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts, and thanks for reading!

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23 Comments

  1. Mun Bagri October 20, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    Great post… What are your thoughts on “wannabe influencers” who do little tricks like making each Hashtag in the form of a comment? So upon first view, you just see “view all 9 comments” when in reality it’s 2 legitimate comments & 7 hashtags.

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author November 12, 2016 at 5:36 pm

      Hi Mun,

      I am not a fan of that at all! I think hiding hashtags in the first comment is excellent, but spreading them out over multiple comments is definitely not an honest tactic.

      Cheers!

      Reply
      1. Penelope May 23, 2017 at 7:05 am

        Sometimes i do that and I never thought about doing it because of pretending to have more comments.
        I would say is just the way to do it and maybe are hashtags that you forget to include .
        So now i look like a faker ? Omg xD 😒 people judging everywhere … Although I’m sure some do it for the reason you say, but not necessarily. Gosh.

        Reply
        1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author June 15, 2017 at 10:20 am

          Hi Penelope, thanks for reading!

          Are you saying that you feel buying fake followers is not wrong? Curious for you to elaborate…

          Cheers!

          Reply
          1. Josh July 22, 2017 at 4:19 pm

            No she’s saying that she puts Hashtags throughout her comments, but only because she sometimes forgets to add them and it’s easier than having to delete the original comment.

  2. Scott Jeffery October 31, 2016 at 9:42 pm

    Thanks for this great article. Constantly baffled when I look at other peoples content vs. Followers.

    I might be only pushing 400 but I’m on the right track with well targeted @ 11% and 0.6%

    Thanks for quantifying it.

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author November 12, 2016 at 5:35 pm

      Hi Scott!

      Really glad you enjoyed it! You’ve got excellent rates, keep up the great work!

      Caley

      Reply
  3. Lynn April 13, 2017 at 5:39 am

    Great article, thank you!
    I looked up this subject because a so-called friend & competitor’s followers has grown from 244 followers to closed to 3000 & climbing rapidly overnight! She only follows 189 & her average like per picture is about 25 and practically no comments – fishy isn’t it?
    So I flat out asked her if she bought followers & she said no.
    Is this legal? Should I do anything about it or simply ignore?
    Frustrating because I put a lot of effort into my work & photos that are my creations.

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author April 15, 2017 at 9:23 am

      Hi Lynn!

      Oh no. Yes, that sounds quite fishy. Almost nobody who does it would admit to it either, but it is extremely common these days. She is only hurting herself though – those people will not convert, and her engagement rate will cause alarm to those who know what to look for.

      Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is any law in place for this. Clearly, it is against ethics and Instagram guidelines, but nobody can truly enforce it.

      I know this is incredibly frustrating, and I see it all of the time amongst my “competitors” as well, however, If I were you, I would do my best to ignore it. Just focus on making your efforts and content better, and engage engage engage! It’s not always about how many followers you have, but how many engaged ones you have and the quality of value you are providing to them. That’s what’s most important!

      Hope this helps and I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this!

      Caley

      Reply
      1. Lynn April 17, 2017 at 3:44 am

        Hi Caley,

        Thanks for your reply, I do appreciate it.

        Of course she denied it and instead she did a big “marketing program” which is total hogwash.
        Anyway, your advice to ignore it and just continue what I’m doing is the best thing I can do – in the end the followers that stay with me is because they love my content & vice-versa. Most of my followers are very engaged and we have real comments/conversations – which is all that counts!

        Thanks again!

        Lynn

        Reply
  4. Porfirio April 22, 2017 at 4:17 am

    Good blog! I truly love how it is simple on my eyes and the data are well written. I’m wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I’ve subscribed to your RSS which must do the trick! Have a great day!

    Reply
  5. Mauro Luiz Soares Zamprogno April 27, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if
    that would be ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new
    updates.

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author May 7, 2017 at 10:11 am

      Hi Mauro! Thank you for the kind words. I am on Twitter but not often. My handle is @DimmockCJ if you’d like to follow me!

      Cheers!

      Reply
  6. Michele Brotto May 9, 2017 at 4:07 am

    Hello Caley, thanks for the great article. It’s very detailed and well written! I would also like to add a tool I’ve discovered recently but it’s really helpful to see if somebody bought followers and likes. Its name is Social Blade (www.socialblade.com) and it shows a graph of the followers of any Instagram account (it does so also for YouTube and Twitter accounts, but it’s not our point here) in time. Basically what you have to check is if there is any gap in the follower’s line, it’s quite easy to see that because usually people buy the same number of followers all the times (500, 1000, 3000 and so on…). Thought it would have been helpful to you and other readers in the case you didn’t know it – Sharing is caring! If you like portrait photography follow me on IG @michelebrottoph 😉
    Cheers,
    Michele

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author June 15, 2017 at 10:18 am

      Hey Michele!

      Thanks for reading! Yes socialblade.com is an amazing tool that I use regularly. I’ve been meaning to update this article and add this to it! Thanks for the reminder 🙂

      Reply
  7. Terry Garcia May 9, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    Hey really nice article very informative

    Reply
  8. ida June 23, 2017 at 4:55 am

    Loved the article! But I had a question though… A lot of people I know have very obviously fake followers but they all look “real”… However they all come from Brazil (shady right?) and have way more follows than followers! I’ve been in touch with some of them telling me they think their accounts are hacked because they don’t follow all these accounts (…could be a lie though!?).

    Do you have any idea what all of this means ? It’s really weird.

    Reply
  9. mary lamb June 26, 2017 at 7:58 am

    what if someone has like 5,000 followers and they get upwards of 1,500 likes and 200 comments – is that engagement likely real? can people buy comments? it seems odd to have so many on an ‘ok’ food photo.

    Reply
  10. Nils Kuiper July 3, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    Quite a useful article, found out that with 390k followers I have an engagement rate of %7,6 which well, is a very useful number to have.. thank you!

    Reply
  11. Allie Mackin July 11, 2017 at 8:11 pm

    Yeah sooooo much fake following and scamming. I know someone personally who is doing this. A month ago she had about 6k followers now she has 16.9k wait no 17.8k yup jumped up about 1000k in 20 mins. I was checking her account for fake folllowers and watched​ as she gained a new follower ever 2-3 seconds. 20 mins her account jumped by 1000k. And same with likes 400-800 likes but only 15-26 likes with 7-13 of the comments are her commenting back on the comments so really only half the amount of comments. Hmmmmmmm.

    Reply
  12. SHERE August 5, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    I love how detail your post was, thanks for that. But nowadays, it is pretty hard to spot just with the above standards. As instagram now can allow user to disable comments, a lot of people choose to do that to avoid seeing mean comments. I sometimes do that too and i only enable comments when there is some other friends in my photo.
    I have 2.5 k followers and the engagement is usually 400-500 but not many comments even before i disabled comments, but that doesnt mean I have fake followers. The thing is people do not comment that much anymore unless you r a friend or some kind of shops or maybe celebs.

    Reply
    1. Caley Dimmock - Site Author August 11, 2017 at 3:36 pm

      Hi Shere,

      You’re very welcome – I’m glad you found it interesting.

      It is definitely very difficult to spot sometimes, and if you’re a marketer looking to run influencer marketing, this is why it’s best to enlist someone very experienced in this area to be able to tell.

      At 2.5k followers, with an average engagement rate of 16-20%, you have a very healthy overall engagement rate. At a following of 2.5k, in my experience, a lack of comments would only set off the need for further investigation if it were below 3 comments/post on average. And even if you had none, you’re right, it certainly wouldn’t mean for sure that you have fake followers, it would just point out that your followers are not highly engaged. I agree that overall, comment rates are down, but marketers and brands do look to work with Instagrammers who have a highly-engaged audience, as it implies that their audience cares more about their content and therefore they have more influence over their audience.

      Cheers!

      Reply

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