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.
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:
And upon further investigation, you see followers and likers whose profiles look like these:
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).
There are of course a few reasons why someone’s account could grow very rapidly aside from buying followers. These include receiving PR outside of Instagram, becoming famous (such as becoming a celebrity, TV star, or appearing in the news with one, etc), participating in loop giveaways, or having something go organically viral. 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. But always ensure to do your due diligence first before just assuming someone has fake followers.
UPDATE JULY 2017: NEW TRENDS + TIPS
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.
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.
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!