In the Age of Fake Followers, How Brands Can Identify Authentic Influencers

Ensuring Authentic Engagement in the Age of Instagram Fake Followers

Towards the end of 2020, Instagram hit the 1 billion monthly users mark, a momentous event that came at least four years earlier than the pundits had predicted. This milestone is, perhaps, the most unmistakable testament to the social networking site’s staying power. In addition to Instagram’s rapid growth, the platform has a rabid user base.

In the U.S. alone, 63% of users check Instagram daily. Available statistics indicate that, on average, an Instagram user spends seven hours every week exploring content on the platform. It is no wonder the influencer space on Instagram is so competitive.

Corporates’ use of influencer marketing has been on the rise in recent years. Influencer Marketing Hub forecasts that the influencer marketing industry will be worth a whopping $13.4 billion by the end of this year, a jump of $4.1 billion since 2020. A considerable portion of that growth is thanks to Instagram, which is most influencers’ favorite social networking platform; as much as 90% of influencer campaigns ensure that they include Instagram in their marketing strategies.

One big draw of the platform is its visual nature that makes interactions seem more heartfelt and personal, an aspect that’s a notable driver of ROI for many brands. Given Instagram popularity in marketing campaigns and influencers’ unending pressure to grow their following on the platform, the emergence of insidious ways of increasing reach and following was not at all unexpected.

In 2018, the New York Times published an investigative report about the fake followers’ phenomenon that has rocked social media websites and the impact this phenomenon is having on the content users consume on these platforms. But how do influencers (or would-be influencers) create fake reach?

How Influencers Create Fake Followers and Reach on Instagram

There are several tactics that influencers create fake reach on Instagram. These include:

The follow/unfollow method

Simply put, this method involves following Instagram accounts of people you think would like the kind of content you publish on your account and then unfollow them a few days or a week later after they’ve followed you back. This growth hack was helpful in Instagram early days, but changes in the platform’s algorithms have made it ineffective. Today, Instagram algorithms will show you content based on the accounts you engage with the most and align with your apparent draw.

Buying followers and likes

Many cheap services are selling Instagram followers and likes for $10 or less. That said, most of the followers you’ll be gaining are often either bots or inactive accounts that will never engage with your content. What’s more, fake followers and likes are bad for your credibility and analytics. In the worst-case scenario, they could result in Instagram suspending your account for flouting its terms and conditions that explicitly forbid such practices.

Influencer pods

According to research done by NYU, hundreds of influencer pods systematically exchange social media comments and likes with the hope of gaming the networks’ algorithms and boosting their accounts visibility. These engagement pods straddle the line between fake and genuine engagement, making them hard to detect.

Why Influencers Create Fake Reach on Instagram

The strategies have worked in the past

A big draw to using fake reach on Instagram is that these tactics have been effective in the past. Instagram has struggled to keep up and rein in these accounts meaning they’ve continued to proliferate with close to zero consequences. Many influencers would tell you that they get more business than it costs them to buy the fake reach. It is this positive ROI that drives influencers to keep buying followers.

That said, the trend is changing, albeit slowly. As businesses have realized how rife these practices are, they have become cautious in choosing the influencers to work with, taking time to sort out the good ones from the bad.

They hope to get better deals with brands

Influencers target businesses that are not as keen on analyzing the authenticity of the followers and engagement of the influencers they want to work with. By ballooning their following artificially, they can create a sense of authority in their niches. They hope to trick companies into paying more than they would for an influencer with fewer follower numbers.

What Is the Cost of Fake Influencer Engagement?

Available statistics show that 55% of all Instagram influencers were involved in some fakery and fraud in 2020. While this was an 8% decrease from the 2019 percentages, it still shows how rampant fraud is amongst influencers; the fraudulent activity cost brands $1.3 billion in 2019, a figure that has most likely gone up since.

For an influencer with around 100K followers, brands find themselves paying as much as $100 more to be featured on an Instagram Story and $50 for a post, the higher cost driven by the influencers’ fake engagement. The result: a few thousand more USD for the campaigns. Influencer campaigns record poor results when they’re based on reach but often thrive on social proof. A CPM-based agreement with an influencer is likely going to result in wasted advertising budgets.

How Can Brands Identify and Act Against These Practices?

Brands are not powerless when it comes to identifying influencers with fake reach. The following are practical ways to identify influencers with inauthentic following and avoid wasting their marketing dollars on influencers with no real clout.

Evaluate brand affinity

Evaluate more than just vanity metrics like how many followers an influencer has. Look into relatability: how well an influencer’s values relate with your brand’s. You will end up with a smaller list of influencers, but the chances are that their followers will better respond to your marketing content.

Calculate their engagement rate

Instagram has begun hiding the number of comments and likes that users have, making it harder to calculate that Instagram account’s engagement rate. This is how you calculate it:

Sum of all the interactions you received on a post divided by the total number of followers when the post was published, multiplied by 1000. This would give you the number of interactions per 1000 fans, i.e., the engagement rate. You can ask the influencer to provide the information you need to calculate this. If they’re authentic and have nothing to hide, then they should readily offer you this information. Of course, the higher the engagement rate, the better that influencer gets their followers to engage with them.


The truth is, fake followers and artificially grown reach on Instagram are here to stay. If the last decade is anything to go by, Instagram will always be a few steps behind influencers determined to bloat their following to get better marketing deals. It, therefore, falls on brands to do due diligence in ensuring that they’re not scammed into social media marketing campaigns that offer no benefits to their bottom line.

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